Obama Leads GOP Field as Santorum Surges in Primary

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Released: February 22, 2012

Marquette Law School Poll shows Obama leading GOP Field, Santorum leading in Wisconsin Republican primary 

A split decision in the U.S. Senate race; “John Doe,” jobs, mining also polled 

Milwaukee, Wis. — President Barack Obama leads each of his Republican rivals in Wisconsin, according to the new Marquette Law School Poll. Obama leads former Senator Rick Santorum 51 percent to 40 percent and leads former governor Mitt Romney by 53 percent to 38 percent. In January, Obama’s lead over Romney was 48 percent to 40 percent. The president holds a 52 percent to 36 percent lead over Rep. Ron Paul and a 56 percent to 33 percent margin over former Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Santorum leads among those who said they would vote in the Republican primary in Wisconsin on April 3 with 34 percent. Romney has the support of 18 percent while Paul has 17 percent. Gingrich trails at 12 percent, with 17 percent saying they are undecided. Santorum has recently surged in national polls and in Michigan polling. Among only Republican respondents who said they would vote in the primary, Santorum received 44 percent to Romney’s 20 percent. Wisconsin’s open primary allows any registered voter to participate.

In other results the poll found 72 percent of the public had heard or read of the “John Doe” investigation of former aides and associates of Governor Scott Walker while he was Milwaukee County executive. Of those who were aware of the investigation, 52 percent said that the investigation is “really something serious,” while 40 percent said that it is “just more politics.”

In the race for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin, former Governor Tommy Thompson has a small lead of 48 percent to 42 percent over Rep. Tammy Baldwin. Baldwin has a slight lead over former Rep. Mark Neumann, 44 percent to 40 percent, and a somewhat larger lead over state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, 45 percent to 37 percent.

Governor Walker’s favorability rating slipped in February to 46 percent with 48 percent unfavorable. In January his favorable rating was 50 percent with 45 percent unfavorable.

The Marquette Law School Poll of 716 Wisconsin registered voters was conducted February 16-19 by both landline and cellular telephone.

Professor Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll and visiting professor of law and public policy at Marquette Law School, noted, “The highly competitive Republican presidential primary has prevented the GOP from uniting behind a single candidate, helping Obama’s performance in the trial heats. The latest surge by Santorum is reflected in Wisconsin, and Romney’s slippage against Obama since January shows that his quest for the Republican nomination faces some serious challenges.”

“John Doe” Investigation

Recent developments in the Milwaukee prosecutor’s “John Doe” investigation of former aides and associates of Scott Walker while he was county executive have caught the attention of nearly three quarters of respondents to the poll. Seventy-two percent said they had heard or read about the investigation, while 23 percent said they had not. Among those aware of the investigation, 52 percent said the investigation is “really something serious” while 40 percent said it is “just more politics.”

Among both Democrats and Republicans, 75 percent were aware of the investigation, while only 56 percent of independents were aware. Partisan differences were much larger on the question of the seriousness of the investigation. Sixty-eight percent of Republicans said it is “just more politics,” with 25 percent saying it is “something serious,” compared to 16 percent of Democrats who see it as “just more politics” and 80 percent “something serious.” Among those independents who had heard of the investigation, 45 percent said it was “just more politics” while 32 percent said it was “something serious.

Possible Recall Election

The still-developing field of potential Democratic candidates for a possible recall election against Walker shows little change in name recognition or favorability since January. Kathleen Falk is viewed favorably by 22 percent and unfavorably by 28 percent, with 47 percent saying they don’t know enough to have an opinion. That compares to 19 percent favorable, 25 percent unfavorable and 51 percent with no opinion in January.

Recently announced candidate, state Senator Kathleen Vinehout has 9 percent favorable, 14 percent unfavorable and 68 percent with no opinion. Vinehout was not included in the January poll.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who has said he is seriously considering entering the race, polled 30 percent favorable, 27 percent unfavorable and 40 percent unable to rate, compared to 34 percent favorable, 27 percent unfavorable and 35 percent unable to rate in January.

Also included in the poll were former Congressman David Obey with 22 percent favorable, 19 percent unfavorable and 55 percent unable to rate, and Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, who has occasionally been mentioned as a possible candidate, with 12 percent favorable, 12 percent unfavorable and 70 percent unable to rate.

Governor Walker’s rating was 46 percent favorable, 48 percent unfavorable and 4 percent unable to rate. In January his ratings were 50 percent favorable, 45 percent unfavorable and 3 percent unable to rate.


Respondents were also asked about jobs in the state. More respondents said Wisconsin had fared better in the recession than the country as a whole, 27 percent, than thought it had fared worse, 13 percent. A majority of 56 percent thought the recession had hit Wisconsin about the same as the rest of the county. But when asked about job growth in the last year, respondents were somewhat more negative about Wisconsin than about the nation as a whole. Twenty-two percent said jobs had increased in Wisconsin, compared to 31 percent who saw jobs increasing nationally. Thirty percent said jobs had declined in Wisconsin, while 28 percent saw a national decline. Forty-five percent saw no change in Wisconsin, while 39 percent saw no national change.

Iron-ore mine

The potential development of an iron-ore mine in northwestern Wisconsin has been the subject of recent public debate and legislative consideration. The question posed to respondents described the issue: “There is a proposal to develop an iron-ore mine in northwestern Wisconsin. Supporters argue that the mine will create 700 jobs and long-term economic benefits. Opponents argue that not enough environmental protections are in place to preserve water and air quality. Do you support or oppose developing the mine?” Fifty-two percent said they support developing the mine, while 33 percent opposed the mine and 15 percent hadn’t heard of the mine or didn’t have an opinion.


About the Marquette Law School Poll

The Marquette Law School Poll is the most extensive independent statewide polling project in Wisconsin history. Running monthly through the 2012 election, it will provide a snapshot of voter attitudes from across the state on the possible gubernatorial recall election and the campaigns for president and U.S. Senate, in addition to gauging opinion on major policy questions.

Members of the public are invited to attend “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” at 12:15 p.m. today at Marquette Law School, where Professor Franklin will provide further context on the poll results. Similar events will be held at the release of each poll throughout the year.

The poll interviewed 716 registered Wisconsin voters by both landline and cell phone February 16-19, 2012. The margin of error is +/- 3.7 percentage points for the full sample. The Republican primary subsample had 424 respondents and a margin of error of +/- 4.9 percentage points. The entire questionnaire, full results and breakdowns by demographic groups are available at http://law.marquette.edu/poll.

Likely Voter Crosstabs

A few people have asked that we include the crosstabs for likelihood of voting in the January Marquette Law School Poll. Those are now included in the .zip file for all crosstabs that can be downloaded from the “Results and Data” page here. The results for likelihood of voting are in the file q2.txt. There are 573 respondents who say they are “absolutely certain” to vote in November and an additional 78 who say they are “very likely” to vote. The margin of error for the 573 absolutely certain group is +/-4.2 percentage points. Combining the two groups gives 651 respondents with a margin of error of +/-3.9 percentage points.

Different pollsters use different criteria to define likely voters, including using additional variables such as attention to the campaign so this single question is not the only way likely voters can be defined. Be especially aware that we did not ask how certain the respondent was to vote in a recall election so those results might differ. See the end of this post for some links to further issues in analyzing likely voter samples.

The results for the governor’s race vary by one or two points, well within the margins of error. If we compare the full registered voter sample with the “absolutely certain to vote” and with the “absolutely + very likely to vote” group, here are the results:

RV Absolutely Absolutely+Very Likely
Walker 49 51 50
Falk 42 42 42
Walker 50 52 51
Barrett 44 44 44
Walker 50 52 51
Cullen 40 39 40
Walker 49 51 50
Obey 43 42 43

For the presidential race the “absolutely certain” group and the “very likely” group are quite different and that produces a much bigger difference depending on how likely voters are grouped:

RV Absolutely Absolutely+Very Likely
Obama 48 45 48
Romney 40 45 41

Obama support drops and Romney increases among those absolutely certain to vote, transforming an eight point Obama lead into a tie among those certain they will vote. But add in those very likely to vote and the results move back to a six point Obama margin. Interestingly, this is more movement than we see in the governor’s race, even though we are comparing the same set of people. Motivation to vote plays only a small role in the trial heat for governor but motivation seems to matter more in the presidential race. One reason may be that voters in Wisconsin have focused a lot of attention on the potential recall election but have not been similarly focused on a presidential race that is still 10 months away.

While likely voter samples are commonly used by pollsters close to election day, there has been considerable doubt raised as to their value when elections are still distant. Much of the change in candidate support appears to be from changes in how sure voters are to turn out rather than actual shifting of preferences. And voters shift their enthusiasm for turning out quite a bit with the ebb and flow of the campaign. This has caused some analysts to conclude that registered voter samples are actually more reliable through most of the campaign, with a focus on likely voters more meaningful only close to election day when potential voters are more sure of whether they will vote or not. One of the best analyses of this issue is by Erikson and colleagues who conclude

When polling on the eve of an election, estimating which respondents are likely to vote is an essential aspect of the art. This article has pointed to dangers of relying on samples of likely voters when polling well before Election Day. Our evidence suggests that shifts in voter classification as likely or unlikely account for more observed change in the preferences of likely voters than do actual changes in voters’ candidate preferences. (Erikson, Panagopoulos and Wlezien, Public Opinion Quarterly, 2004. Emphasis added.)

Mark Blumenthal of Pollster.com also has a nice discussion of this issue at this link.